from the Dunedin double EP, Flying Nun, 1982
Space, the slow rat-a-tat-tat of the drums, the dum-dum-dum of the bass, the wiry constant of a strummed guitar. A distant-sounding singer shouts his vocal from the other side of a valley. It’s as raw and elemental as the deserted spots on earth not many miles from where the song was conceived. To end it, the rhythm doubles in speed and pre-Sonic Youth buzz-saw guitar stylings are unleashed; a musical sketch that would be expanded upon for the untitled B side of the Verlaines next release, which itself would be reworked into a glorious epic with an extended range of instrumentation as ‘CD, Jimmy Jazz and me’ on Bird-dog. So it’s not surprising to learn that this isn’t how ‘You cheat yourself of everything that moves’ was supposed to sound, as Graeme Downes explained in 1999:
‘‘You cheat’ was entirely remixed because it was done really badly on the Dunedin double EP. I also sang a new vocal over it, which is louder but not entirely satisfactory… at least you can hear the guitars at the end. It’s radically different on the Juvenilia edition to what is on the original, much closer to how it was intended to sound. When we did Dunedin double I knew nothing about making records and the concept of mixing was completely foreign. I couldn’t afford to go to Auckland to do it anyway so left Sneaky Feelings in charge of mixing the songs (they were heading up that way); they did okay with the first two but took my instructions regarding ‘You cheat’ rather too literally.’
It’s twenty-five years since the release of the Dunedin double EP, a lodestar for New Zealand music (at least from my perspective, and perhaps of anyone with an interest in worldwide independent music in Britain). I’m sure I‘ve missed the exact date of the anniversary – sometime in the southern hemisphere’s autumn – but I made a promise to myself that I would write about each group before the end of 2007. That meant tracking down and treating myself to a copy, and in so doing, safely spending more on one vinyl object than I ever have before.
It’s twenty years since I first heard the Verlaines, and the same number have passed with me trying unsuccessfully to write about them. I’m sure this must happen to other music writers – a group they admire or love so much that they’re paralysed by the task, by the fear of not doing them justice. A bogey-group. Scattered through my writing on Tangents are references to them. But the moment has finally come to square up to the music made by Graeme Downes and his varying line-up of fellow Verlaines. Wish me luck.
How I came across the Verlaines illustrates the fervency they inspired in those who discovered them. If Mike Ticher is known at all, it is as the founding editor of football fanzine When Saturday Comes, but he also wrote one about music called Snipe. As the Verlaines’ records were so hard to get hold of outside of the Antipodes, he printed an offer to tape them for anyone who was interested, intimating that we all ought to be. I guess Mike was shrewd enough to know that he wouldn’t be snowed under with C90s but I’m forever grateful to him for bringing the perfection that is Hallelujah all the way home into my life where it has remained, as frequently played as any LP in my collection, ever since. (Mike was such a fan of all things antipodean that he gave up the editorship of his increasingly influential football fanzine to go and live in Australia. He re-emerged in the nineties as a football writer for the Guardian.)
Another illustration: Hallelujah all the way home is the only record I ever purchased at a branch of the Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange to render a member of its perennially defeated and underpaid staff excited. Its song-cycle is driven by Graeme Downes’ insistently rousing delivery; its purpose and content shot-through with disdain for ordinary and mundane and a elitist concern for the plight of the artist-musician that was as problematic as it was attractive to a highly politicised listener in his late teens with too much time on his hands. The high-point is ‘For the love of ash grey’ where early music and the Mahler-esque meet an electric guitar wielded by the archetypal outsider moved to deliver a metaphorical rebuke to book-burning ignorance. But there’s also a reckless, lovelorn feel which grounds songs like ‘Lying in state’ in the more demotic world of the drinker:
Yeah all that I do, more or less
Is for some woman’s sake
Thoughts of a maniac
Saturday is lying in state
I’m getting ahead of myself. The Dunedin double – two 12 inches released by Christchurch label Flying Nun featuring a side each from the Verlaines, the Stones, the Chills and the Sneaky Feelings – was a lodestar for the independent pop of New Zealand, but it was also more statement of intent than finished article; of the quartet, only the Chills had fully realised their sound, and then just on their lead song, ‘Kaleidoscope world’ (more of which in part C of this Dunedin double mini-series). All four groups hailed from Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island. So close in spirit are they to those of Glasgow and Edinburgh down the years, it isn’t a stretch to guess that there must be something Scottish in the blood, bricks, air, or water of Dunedin. Indeed, the city was founded by the Free Church of Scotland, the name of the city derives from the Gaelic for Edinburgh, and its early architecture and layout took their inspiration from the Scottish capital. It was obviously far enough from received critical wisdom in the nominal centres of things to ensure that when the waters of punk broke on its shores, a handful of groups followed their own noses. At the same time, slightly less distant from London, Scotland was likewise throwing up its own clutch of wilful pop mavericks and magicians. You only have to look at the clothes the Verlaines and Sneaky Feelings are wearing on the sleeve of Dunedin double – ill-fitting woolly jumpers, crumpled shirts – to know that, as with the Sound of Young Scotland, this was primarily about the noise.
The EP followed the success of the Clean’s ‘Tally ho!’, a top twenty hit in New Zealand. Aficionados of Flying Nun all have their respective favourites, the Clean or the Bats for some, Straitjacket Fits and the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience for others; for me it is Sneaky Feelings, the Chills and the Verlaines. The eighties recordings of these groups might be so many great lost songs from the other side of the world but for the distance-zapping power of the Web. Will it ever again be possible for music to develop in ways so unaffected by what is happening on the far side of the world? Or will the selectiveness and serendipity of web interconnectedness breed in its own way similarly unique musical strains?
The Verlaines followed the Dunedin double with their signature tune, ‘Death and the Maiden’, the chorus being the poet’s name repeatedly intoned. Released in 1983, it’s the sound of a group with true musical vision hitting its stride. At the launch show for the Clientele’s Strange Geometry, Alasdair MacLean, wearing an old-school Scotland football shirt, quoted a verse from ‘Death and the maiden’ between songs, modestly suggesting he’d never write words as good as:
Do you like Paul Verlaine?
Is it gonna rain today?
Shall we have our photo taken?
We’ll look like ‘Death and the Maiden’
These early recordings are collected together with the mini LP 10 o’clock in the afternoon on Juvenilia. 10 o’clock… gave us the sublime ‘Joed out’, which features another quatrain MacLean might covet:
It’s 10 o’clock in the afternoon
You’d better come by here soon
Or I’ll go out of my mind
The winter’s been unkind…
It also offers the first signs of what would become a pioneering blend of post-punk and Western Art music. Or indie-classical if you like; not a promising cocktail when mixed by the wrong bartender. There is not much in the way of orchestration but it’s easy to spot where there might have been, with guitars and organ performing symphonic swoops on ‘Burlesque’, and, as ‘You say you’ heads into its finale, the elbows of an imaginary string section sawing intently while the hair of their ghost-conductor trails in the wake of the dramatic movements of his whirling head and baton.
After Hallelujah came 1987’s Bird-dog, the Verlaines’ most musically realised record. The choral vocals typically and sometimes pointedly draw on pre-popular music but on ‘Only dream left’ there are also the first showings of Cole Porter-esque swing that came to full bloom three years later with Some disenchanted evening. Never an unconfident singer, Graeme howls at the moon like a sick hound, which suits the mood here and elsewhere perfectly. The title song turns brilliantly from initial reflections on ageing and shot integrity into an anthem to imported German beer; fundamentally the lyrical concern is still for the position of the artist in society. ‘Icarus missed’ retells the myth of the bird-man, suggesting that his wings didn’t melt: ‘The sun was never that hot / He was shot from the ground’. To end the LP, the solitary oboe of ‘Death and the maiden’’s B-side ‘C.D. Jimmy Jazz and me’ is replaced by a full orchestral treatment: Icarus flies into the sun and out the other side.
Apparently Graeme Downes did not enjoy making Some disenchanted evening; the Verlaines’ last for Flying Nun, it’s my favourite alongside Hallelujah. ‘Jesus what a jerk’ opens it, like the door onto a pub full of noise and warmth in winter, and at moments the group threaten to bust out of the speakers and into the room with you. ‘We’re all gonna die’ is actually set in a pub, or possibly the grubby kind of venue few groups avoid along their way. It’s a companion piece to ‘Bird-dog’ and the many beer-stained songs in Downes’ back catalogue. Otherwise and despite its title the LP sounds lighter, brighter and more measured to these ears, with a hatful of well-developed ideas. Graeme Downes knows the rules of composition but bends them to bring complexity to the essential simple form of the pop song; there are echoes of the great standard-writers of the 20th century. Two more disparate characters you probably couldn’t pair, but there’s a plausible link between songs like ‘Faithfully yours’ and ‘It was’ and those of Vic Godard in his ‘I’m going to write a musical’ / T.R.O.U.B.L.E. phase.
The engines fail intermittently on Ready to fly (Slash). Many of the songs seem routine in comparison with the abundance of ideas in the previous batch and there’s little zip in the production, no alchemical transition from the muse’s bidding to the taped document. The exceptions are the title track with its trumpet-powered ascent and ‘Hole in the ground’ with its quick-slow counter-rhythms and typical Verlaines crescendo.
Again recording for Slash, this time in Hollywood, Way out where does not initially raise the hopes of the long-time Verlaines admirer, with its vulture cover and grunge band photo. But ‘Mission of love’ is a thumping call of poets to arms, ‘This valentine’ employs a tried and tested Downes structure – quiet first verse, rising second and rousing chorus, fall back and repeat, with a bridge before the third time round – stuffing his songs with ideas more parsimonious groups would have eked out over two or three. ‘Lucky in my dreams’ is a darker take on the Go-Betweens’ ‘Head full of steam’, with its portrayal of a woman out of the writer’s league. ‘Blanket over the sky’ is followed – inevitable Verlaines logic – by ‘Cathedrals under the sea’, the latter a plaintive let-up from the aeronautical pace of the album, which overall sounds rather buffeted by Nirvana’s tailwind. It also lacks the variety of instrumentation (strings and woodwind only appear on the album-closing ‘Dirge’) on the first three LPs proper.
By the time Over the moon crept out in 1997, I confess I was looking the other way. (Never released outside of New Zealand, where Sony put it out on the Columbia imprint, it brings together and evokes the best of previous recordings. ‘Hanging by strands’ is a lugubrious match for anything on Some disenchanted evening, the backwards-forwards motion of ‘Feather fell’ might have seen it sit comfortably on Bird-dog, and the light heaviness or heavy lightness of ‘Bonfire’ and ‘Jailhouse 4.00 am’ echo the best of the two Slash recordings, while melodically, ‘When I fall’ feels like something new in among the old, borrowed and blue.) But I kept coming back to the earlier records, and when a more visible solo effort by Graeme surfaced in 2001, it seemed like I ought to catch up with it. Looking very much the director-auteur on the back cover of Hammers and anvils, smoking a Camel in a European square, I had hoped that this might be a career-defining record. Graeme’s vocals sound great against the backdrop of a single electric on the title track, as indeed they do across the album. But the problems on ‘Cole Porter’ are obvious – the computer-generated swing of brass and woodwind are as thin and flat as a crepe in comparison with their kind on Some disenchanted evening, while the sequenced drums on ‘Alright by me’ and ‘Rock’n’roll hero’ are formulaic. The biographical material on the Matador website reveals that Graeme and his production team were ‘learning the technology’ as they recorded the album, and also that they lost half of it in a hard-drive meltdown and had to get through an inevitable depression to redo that half. Whether the better or worse part of the original record remains is uncertain. Still, ‘Day of the dead’ and ‘Song for a Hollywood road movie’ sound like departures or re-imaginings of what Verlaines songs are for. Mostly under worked and a little stilted, Hammers and anvils was a disappointment on first hearing. Listening now as part of the river of young, middle and old age Downes songs, it sounds better, and sets me wondering what he might have conjured up for his second solo record, apparently lined up for release by Flying Nun, in a fitting act of homecoming twenty-five years after the Dunedin double.
While I usually leave this implicit – there is after all an excess of music and writing about music in our processor-fired world – I’m going to conclude with an explicit exhortation to listen to the Verlaines. But unlike Mike Ticher, I’m not going to back this up with an offer to tape or in twenty-first century terms mp3 them for you. No need, when the uninitiated can sample four songs here, or easily and affordably locate a copy of the Flying Nun anthology You’re just too obscure for me. Its selection from the years 1983 to 1997 is reasonably judicious. Given that you have taken the trouble to read all the way to the end of this overlong piece, I have a hunch that you might like it. Either that or you already own it. Or played on it.